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Brian Dettmer puts vintage books under the knife 

Artist's painstaking process reveals a New World between the covers

“The March of Democracy, 2010” by Brian Dettmer

Courtesy Saltworks and the artist

“The March of Democracy, 2010” by Brian Dettmer

Artist Brian Dettmer was never really a big reader. But that doesn't mean he doesn't love books. Growing up, he used to dumpster dive for books with his brother at the school across the street from their house. They'd return with dozens of them for the ever-growing library in their attic. Now, Dettmer slices into vintage hardbacks with surgical precision, working with a knife and tweezers to carefully extract layer after layer of paper to form dense, intricate sculptures. New Worlds to Conquer, his first solo show in Atlanta on view at Saltworks Gallery through Jan. 15, brings a modern perspective to the institutional knowledge of the early 20th century.

Did the show's theme reveal itself as you started discovering books, or did you set out with something in mind?

I think the theme started revealing itself. ... Most of the books that I use for any of my work basically range from 1900s to 1960s or '70s. I don't want to work with things that are too antiquarian. I like the idea that they're vintage, but I don't want to necessarily alter or change something that's really priceless or can't be replaced.

Anything since the '60s or '70s I think has just got a different feel. ... I like the idea that the books have a history. It kind of has that age patina on it, and you know that it used to be very precious and very functional.

How hard is it to find books in complete sets?

Some of the pieces are sets and some of these are multiples of the same book. ["The March of Democracy, 2010"] is a series, one through five, of The March of Democracy. So, I had an idea for that. I knew I wanted it to be five books, so I bought three different sets of books. Sometimes it works the opposite way, where I'll have books or I'll find books and then the idea will come.

Usually I have to actually be holding the books and flipping through them before I know whether they're going to work or not, so I don't randomly buy stuff on eBay that often. Even if it looks nice, you never know what you're going to get. Even the type of paper kind of matters.

That's interesting. How much flipping through the book do you do beforehand? When you cut, how much are you conscious of what you're looking for, and how much of it is serendipitous?

Almost all of it is serendipitous. I make sure the book's going to work - the paper type, the design, the content, the title, the illustration quality. The fact that there's enough information there to work with, but not too much, where it's overly saturated.

When I'm looking through, sometimes I might see this nice, full-page image, and think, "I hope I come across that," but then once I start carving, I completely forget about whatever that was, and it's like it doesn't exist. I just accidentally moved it or found something else, and so I'm never planning any specific content.

Do you ever get scared or hesitate cut out something, like you might want that bit back later?

Yeah, a little bit. Because it's completely subtractive, but there is some push and pull, like the way a painter or sculpture might have. There are thousands of different decisions I'm making in each piece. People have asked if I make mistakes, and it's like well, if I don't find something in that area, I just move on, but sometimes its get kind of desperate toward the end.

So, the more you work with books, do you find it easier to cut into them or do you feel more inhibited?

Easier technically?

Emotionally.

Yeah, I can say that I kind of build up a tolerance. I like the idea of suggesting the loss of information, but I don't ever actually ever want to be participating in erasing something that isn't replaceable. That's part of the reason I put so much work into finding the actual pieces. I owe it to the fact that I am transforming a book to put enough work into it to justify permanently changing the function of the book, but also being able to call it my own.

What are motivations as you are working on a piece?

I try to let the actual content of the book speak to me and tell me where it needs to go, without it ending up being a tribute to the piece. I kind of want it to expose fragments so that you can get the essence in one image. So how much am I pushing a personal or political vision or agenda within the piece? Most of these are pretty generic statements. I try not to push it into too much of one direction so that it's still open to interpretation to the viewer. I try to feel like I'm not manipulating the original content to push my own agenda. I guess in a way, I sort of am, but it's all the original material so this is what it ends up saying. ... So to just kind of expose what may not be admitted when the books were originally created is what I try to do.

What materials do you see nowadays that people looking back maybe in 75 years would be able to do something similar with?

I wonder about that, because I work with books and cassette tapes and records and maps... I haven't done anything with CDs - they're too shiny. There are a lot of programmers right now that are playing with structure - actually manipulating software and hardware. I don't know much about that stuff but what's interesting to me is that it changes so quickly - it's not like a set solid form. It hasn't rested long enough, because it's constantly changing, so I wouldn't know how to contemplate. There are people that hack iPhones, but it's never for the concept, it's just so they can have access. So I don't really know, but it's a good question. ... Everything is so vulnerable.

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